Korean Talks Called Off, Stalling Reunification Bid
World's most heavily armed border remains tense as North buys time
SEOUL — ONE year after the two rival Koreas signed historic peace accords, they remain as far apart as ever, prolonging cold-war tensions in northeast Asia.
The stalled attempt at detente on this heavily armed peninsula worsened last week when communist North Korea canceled a scheduled meeting of the two nations' prime ministers.
With scant results to show after a year of sometimes bitter negotiations, both nations are locked in a trial of patience, each waiting to see if events will turn their way.
Officials in Seoul now suspect that North Korea has merely used the accords and the talks as defensive moves to block or stall any outside pressure for a German-style unification, in which the South would likely absorb the North. Pyongyang leaders also admit that they hoped the opening of talks would persuade Japan and other nations to end an aid and investment embargo.
In addition, the stalemate has won time for North Korea to build up its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. United States officials suspect the complex is an atomic-bomb project. North Korea admits that it has extracted a "small" amount of plutonium at the site but claims it was only for peaceful research.
From the South's perspective, the talks are stalled because the North refuses to accept a broad scheme for mutual inspection of each nuclear or military facility to check if either side is building an atomic bomb. The dispute has halted progress in other parts of the accords, such as setting up a military hotline or unifying families divided by the 1950-53 Korean war.
"These agreements are now in vain," says Gong Ro Myung, South Korea's chief delegate to the Joint Nuclear Control Commission, the joint body set up under the accords to negotiate nuclear issues.
"We had hoped that these talks with the North would be different [than in the past.] But we can't jump over the wide barriers of mistrust that have lasted almost a half century.
"Frankly, we're a little sick and tired. Here it is the dawn of 1993, and Korea is still living in the cold war," Mr. Gong says. The demilitarized border between North and South is the most heavily armed in the world, with a combined presence of more than 1.5 million soldiers.
"As days go by, it is so evident that North Korea is just using tactics," Gong says. "It's in a willy-nilly stage: One day it's one thing, the next day it's another." He says the talks have been little more than "verbal warfare," with the North trying to score propaganda points.
"They're not talking to us. They are talking to the microphone, which is connected to Pyongyang," he says.
Last May, in a separate action, North Korea did allow the first inspection of the Yongbyon complex by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
After four inspections at the site, the IAEA found no evidence of a weapons program, although in-depth probes of a 5-megawatt reactor are scheduled for February to detect how much plutonium has been extracted from fuel rods.
South Korea and the US insist that a mutual inspection scheme is needed beyond IAEA inspections, which are limited to sites reported by a host government.
"IAEA inspections are one thing. Mutual inspections [between the Koreas] is another. IAEA's work will complement our inspections," Gong says. The North proposes once-a-year inspections, while the South seeks to inspect any site on short notice.
In October, in response to North Korea's position, the US and South Korea decided to resume their joint military exercises, involving most of 37,400 American troops stationed in the country. Dubbed "Team Spirit," the exercises were canceled in 1991 to boost the negotiations.
Seoul has also linked agreement of mutual inspections to any South Korean investment in the North. Japan and the US have so far followed Seoul's lead.
Another demand by Seoul is for the North to end plots to overthrow the South Korean government. In October, 62 people were arrested in what Seoul intelligence officials said was a huge spy ring led by an elderly female Communist leader from the North.
In retaliation for the resumption of Team Spirit troop maneuvers, North Korea called off the December prime ministerial talks and also threatens to stop the next IAEA probe. In the past, the North has responded to Team Spirit with its own massive troop exercises. But that may be more difficult now.
"If we go ahead with Team Spirit next March, the North won't be able to mobilize its military in response, due to a shortage of oil," says Ok Tae Hwan, research director at the government's Research Institute for National Unification.
The North's energy shortage has worsened since 1990, when Moscow cut off most aid, notably oil, to Pyongyang. China, which has also long provided fuel to North Korea, had planned to demand payment in hard currency starting in January rather than the usual exchange of goods.
This shift in Beijing's stance toward its ally would have put further pressure on the energy-poor North to compromise with the South. But Western intelligence reports indicate China may be only partially implementing the new payment scheme.
"China's aid will help the North Korean economy very much, providing both coal and badly needed food," says Kil Jeong Woo, senior fellow at the unification institute. "China doesn't want to see a Somalia situation in North Korea."
The North's economy is in a "very bad situation," Dr. Kil says, "but North Koreans are very familiar with hard times. We can't judge their conditions by Western standards. The people don't have any experience of a better life."
Seoul's long-term strategy is not to drive the much poorer North into a economic corner, but rather slowly help it develop so as to ease the strain of future unification on the south.
"If North Korea doesn't reform, it will collapse anyway in five years," Dr. Ok says. "But if they try to follow the Chinese model and open the economy, they risk losing political control. They are now debating just how much to open the economy."
One sign that reformers in Pyongyang are gaining some ground was the appointment this month of a new prime minister, Kang Song San. Respected by Russian diplomats who know him, Kang was prime minister in the mid-1980s during a failed attempt by North Korea to woo foreign investment.
The South's hand was strengthened by the Dec. 18 election of a new South Korean president, Kim Young Sam, who is the first civilian leader in three decades. The relatively clean voting has left the South more democratic and less prone to North-instigated unrest.
Many South Koreans, after seeing Germany's hardship with unification and North Korea's negotiation tactics, are in much less of a hurry to unify with the North, Ok says. Seoul officials are debating whether the costs of unification would be higher if it is delayed. A delay would widen the income gap between the two countries, upping the economic burden on the South.
"But if the regime collapses early, South Korea would have difficulty coping with the sudden chaos," Ok says.
After Team Spirit takes place, Ok predicts, the North-South negotiating process will resume "and it will be more serious than before."